Mary Poppins Returns - Practically Imperfect
When revisiting or following up a classic it is possible to recapture the original too much. A spirit and tone must be attained, a general familiarity and style, but the story and characters should be allowed to grow or otherwise it has no hope of escaping the original’s shadow.
This is the exact situation of Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel and let’s be honest, light remake of the 1964 iconic musical produced by Walt Disney himself and starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke at the peak of their careers.
It was an enterprise that was always a risky venture -Mary Poppins is after all Disney’s greatest live-action film, one of the company’s most beloved properties, and many rightly felt the magic couldn’t be reignited.
So everyone involved, from director Rob Marshall to writer David Magee and stars Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda had to proceed with absolute caution to hide the cynical nature of its existence. This strict detail to replicating the original pays off in the films’ general aesthetic, select sequences, and musical numbers, but makes for an incredibly drab and derivative fantasy.
Set in 1935, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) have grown up and the former continues to live in their childhood home with his young family. Recovering from the recent death of his wife and trying to avoid the bank repossessing his home, his children are left to their own devices when Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) reappears and sets herself up once more as the family nanny. With the help of a lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), she takes the hardened children on whimsical adventures that teach them the importance of fun and imagination, whilst hopefully imparting a lesson on their father as well.
You’ve probably caught on to this movies’ detrimental failing by now. Its plot is just about an exact replica of the plot to the original Mary Poppins.
Forgetting the effect Mary left on the Banks children, they still grew up to be their parents, Michael just as humourless and stern as George, and Jane just as preoccupied with her cause as Winifred, campaigning for labour unions where her mother fought for womens’ suffrage.
New characters Jack and Topsy (Meryl Streep) are nothing more than impressions of Van Dyke’s Bert and Ed Wynn’s Uncle Albert.
The story never throws you through a loop or challenges the audience or does anything remotely surprising. And it’s more than a similarity in general plot direction, almost every story beat and song is a direct mirror to one from the original. “Lovely London Sky” is “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee”, “Can You Imagine That” is “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is “Step in Time”, etc. And because of all this familiarity utilizing plot devices that have since Mary Poppins become cliché, the film drags in a number of places playing far too safe with very dynamic material and hardly ever dipping into any of P.L. Travers’ other Mary Poppins books for inspiration.
However it can’t be denied how well Mary Poppins Returns captures the tone and even in moments, the magical nature of the original.
This is glimpsed first in the wonderful “Can You Imagine That” sequence where a bathtub becomes an ocean, and is on full display throughout the adventure in the bowl. It’s not only utterly delightful to see hand-drawn animation during this extended sequence, but to see it in the specific style of 1960s Disney cartoons.
Covering two songs and being analogous to the pavement sequence of the earlier film, it’s visually spellbinding and recalls a time when Disney took pride in the artistry of traditional animation. The live-action characters integrate into the world superbly as well. And while they are unoriginal in purpose and emotion, the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman would fit perfectly alongside the Sherman Brothers’ classic repertoire.
With the exception of a movement in “A Cover is Not a Book” that plays closer to Miranda’s energetic hip-hop style, none of the songs are given a modern redressing, with just as timeless an appeal as “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. “The Place Where Lost Things Go” is the particular highlight, attempting to attain a similar sweetness and poignancy of “Feed the Birds”, and largely succeeding.
It must also be said that Emily Blunt makes for a good Mary Poppins.
She was never going to surpass the monumental icon of Julie Andrews, but she does well with the general attitude and can sing as well as any stage actress in this part.
Miranda plays his character with unbridled energy and the same charmingly terrible Cockney accent Van Dyke affected fifty-four years ago.
Whishaw and Mortimer sadly feel underutilized though, the former having the unenviable task of walking in the footsteps of David Tomlinson, the soul of Mary Poppins.
The three children aren’t very compelling or relatable either, largely due to script deficiencies. Colin Firth though seems to enjoy playing a one-dimensional villain and Julie Walters is of course a natural taking over Hermione Baddeley’s role as Ellen the housekeeper, having essentially played the same character in bothPaddington films. In fact a few characters make reappearances, including Admiral Boom and Mr. Binnacle now played by David Warner and Jim Norton, and replacing Arthur Malet as Mr. Dawes Jr. is none other than Dick Van Dyke himself, looking exactly as he did playing Dawes Sr. in the original. His presence is so heartwarming it undercuts the fact that Angela Lansbury makes a cameo clearly originally intended for Julie Andrews (Andrews of course is busy meeting Aquaman).
Mary Poppins Returns is a movie that obviously shouldn’t have been made. The fact that it has doesn’t diminish the good, even great things that can be gleaned from it. It’s a film that has so many of the right pieces in place but is missing the most crucial ones, trying to masque unambitious repetition in boisterous nostalgia. It doesn’t justify itself enough, too aware of the shadow it exists in to try anything significantly different. Because of this, it falls not only short of that original but of the cinematic landscape it’s been released in.